What Guatemala Does Better

written by Jennifer McGlone

If you happen to follow the New York Times, you would have read on January 29 an editorial by US Vice President Joe Biden about Central America. Justifying his request for $1 billion in aid, he described this region with phrases such as “endemic violence and poverty,” “inadequate education, institutional corruption, rampant crime,” and “hotbed for drug smuggling [and] human trafficking.” While his generous intentions are admirable, I fear that most Americans too easily believe those enormous social problems portray the entire picture of countries whose voice isn’t heard in the West. This blog entry is my attempt to correct that imbalance.

I had the great good fortune to visit Guatemala recently to experience what they call Semana Santa, or Holy Week. Leading up to Easter, Guatemalans take time off from school and work, and many of them participate in elaborate church procesiones. I wish I had enough space and vocabulary to describe these here, but that’s another entry. I’d like to, rather, explore with you how many pleasant surprises Guatemala showed me. More specifically, I’d like to list some of the ways that we in the US could benefit if we imitated Guatemalans. Most of these ideas are trivial, but they serve as examples of how wrong we are when we talk about other countries so disparagingly.

Red and Green Lights on Parking Decks


Many of us have suffered the annoyance of driving through a crowded parking deck searching for an empty spot. Maybe it’s Friday evening at the airport, or Christmas Eve at the mall. You creep along, trying to go fast enough to keep the car behind you happy but not too fast for you to miss a potential slot. You see emptiness just past a minivan, but when you pull even you see that a motorcycle has laid claim. The frustration builds until you decide to navigate the corkscrew to the top floor, where you end up parking on a ramp or out in the rain.

Wouldn’t those situations be vastly improved if you could glance down a row of cars and immediately know if an empty spot awaited you? In Guatemala City, the two decks we visited possessed lights at the end of each parking space that illuminated red when occupied and green when available. We simply drove until we saw a green light and then slipped into our spot. No more unpleasant motorcycle surprises! I thought this system was brilliant.

Staged “Accidents”

On the subject of driving, another clever innovation that Guatemala showed me was the staged DWI “accident.” On our way out of Guatemala City, we came upon a traffic jam. After about 15 minutes of creeping along, we saw that the right-hand lane was blocked off with orange cones. Once the traffic had finished merging into one lane, we filed past two smashed-up vehicles surrounded by police with their sedan lights flashing. My immediate reaction was to gasp in horror, because there was no way anyone in those vehicles could have emerged unscathed. But our driver told us that the police staged the “accident” to raise awareness about the dangers of drinking and driving. It was very effective. The snarl of traffic had gotten our attention so that by the time we saw what had caused it, we were transfixed.

Chicken Buses


(Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/davidden/68839644/)

This idea may sound a little crazy, but I think with some tweaking it could work. While public transportation does exist in Guatemala, most people without their own vehicles use “chicken buses.” Did you ever wonder what happened to old US school buses? Entrepreneurial Guatemalans purchase and adorn them with vibrant colors and patterns. They then purchase the right to drive a route.  The more festive the bus appears, the more customers will want to ride it, so it behooves the owner to make his bus eye-catching. The end result, while of questionable safety (here’s where the tweaking would occur), is a constant parade of kaleidoscopic creativity. The mundane practice of driving becomes a visual delight.

Popcorn At Movies

Leaving the roads to indulge in some recreation, another change I’d like to see us adopt in the US involves our snack choices at the movie theater. While in the US our popcorn options are limited to size and whether or not to add “butter-flavored topping,” in Guatemala popcorn comes in three flavors that can be left alone or combined. When we saw “Insurgent,” for example, we got a medium popcorn that was half plain and half caramel. The other flavor was butter, which actually resembles the real-life dairy item. Not only is the price a vast improvement, but the taste was better, as well.

What Next?

While these innovations might sound far-fetched or unworkable in the US, I offer them as evidence to contradict common misperceptions about Guatemala in particular and Central America in general. No doubt these countries have their struggles, but to focus exclusively on the poverty neglects the bigger picture. Behind each one of these ingenious customs is a way of thinking that is in every way equal to ours in the US. Opportunities for an intelligent expression of this thinking may be limited, but that shouldn’t cloud our understanding. In conclusion, I’d encourage everyone who reads this to go to Guatemala and experience the parking decks, “accidents,” chicken buses, and popcorn for yourself. You will undoubtedly discover even more ideas to bring back and share!

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